India Trip Notes
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3-06-11 - A Typical Early Morning in Tiru
Bro Lor wrote: Listen up, Bro, please be generous to us in your reporting from India. Your stories and adventures are always fabulous and bring us there, right with you. Especially to those of us who are enjoying one of the most chilling winters of all time. We're buried in snow. The notes could be short, like tweets but more fleshed out. Like: "Today I woke up, did an hour of zazen, and already the sun was heating up the dusty path to the mountain. Stopped at my favorite tea-shop and enjoyed Idli Sambhar and a cup of chai. Plan to do some writing later...." something like that. That would warm our hearts on a cold winters day.
I'm happy for you and Katrinka. Tamil Nadu is a state filled with temples, tea estates, and weird and wonderful people. Try a Bhang Lassi for the total Shiva experience.
Yes, it's something like that, though no bhang lassies - haven't seen or heard of them down here - saw them up in northern India eight years ago - but anyway as I've made clear, none of that for me for years now - neither the bhang nor the whimper.
A typical day for me in Tiruvannamalai - often called Tiru round here though there are many places in Tamil Nadu that begin with "tiru" which means good, auspicious - begins in walking a short distance from my apartment to the Ramana Ashram, leaving my sandals at the shoe cage and receiving a numbered tag, walking then barefoot in the dirt further into the ashram to the meditation room, to Ramana's meditation room with a large picture of him on his couch, on his couch behind a wooden railing I'm sure wasn't there when he was. And when he was here his policy I've heard was he was always available - anytime night or day. Some come in and prostrate themselves on the floor before this couch and photo.
I do a standing bow and sit on the floor next to the wall if there's room and on a thin square cushion if one remains and join the five to twenty people there. There are also a few short tables which are used as stools. An occasional person brings something else but most of us just sit on the hard surface which reminds me of Dan Welch sitting on no cushion, just hard wood, with the monks, at Ryutakji in Japan in the early sixties. Here people come and go as they please, some just coming to pay respect and leave.
At about six forty-five chanting begins in the nearby large shrine room where people also are sitting. I'll usually get up then and go join them on the floor or circumambulating the altar area within which a couple of shirtless, sweating priests, hair tied in bobs, are officiating, one holding a tray with flowers and smoky, smoky incense, behind them is a statue of Ramana sitting - installed by Mrs. Gandhi I think years ago. There's another statue of Ramana sitting in the entrance to the adjoining smaller shrine room. At the end of the chanting of fifteen minutes or so, Indians and foreigners who were sitting on expansive marble floor rise and go to the front to put their hands over a flame on a tray a priest is holding and receive a tiny amount of sweets. Others standing in line around the altar wait their turn to receive a spoon of warm sweet milk in their right palm.
People go out then, some to wash their face and hands at a trough with faucets, others to get breakfast or stand around and talk or go to view the room where Ramana died or the toilet or front gate. It's a big place with people doing this and that here and there, coming and going, without any sense of urgency or obligation. It's all very loose and free. No one cares what you're doing or corrects your form - unless you're being loud on a cell phone which I saw produce self-righteous anger, itself rather loud, on the part of a Westerner.
I go back out and get my sandals, watching to see the attendant slowly figure out where that number is, once bringing me those from 78 instead of 87. I turn to see a peacock opening his fan for a peahen. Lots of them around here, an albino one too. As I walk out I watch others walking in - the purely devotional and those deep into self-inquiry, the Arunachala worshipers, and the tourists, the rich and the poor, those born here and on the other side of the world. A bus stops and twenty or so young women in colorful saris get off. I see them walk into the ashram without stopping to leave footwear inside or with those spread around outside the shoe cage and realize that they all are barefoot to begin with. Lots of people are.
Westerners who have homes or rooms where shoes aren't worn tend to do so more in the Indian style than the Japanese which is generally misunderstood. The Japanese custom is exact - shoes are worn in the dirty area and feet on the clean and even then back into house slippers unless it's on tatami. But never do they take off shoes and put bare feet on the surface where shoes are worn but step up from the footwear to the clean area and it is clean - and then leaning down to neatly arrange the footwear which is often then re-tidied by the next person or the hostess. Here it's not exact or neat or all that clean, maybe done as much out of respect as a sense of cleanliness. Here you could just go barefoot all the time if you could take the heat and weren't afraid of sharp objects in your path.
I walk down the road past orange-clad holy men, beggars which I ignore, cows with sharp horns, dogs, trash, always the trash - mainly plastic, heap of coconuts next to coconut shells, little piles of swept debris waiting to be gathered by the refuse pickers, stalls opened and opening for the day. I go to one where newspapers are sold and get the Deccan for one rupee and a bunch of tiny bananas for ten.
As I walk back I hand out the bananas to the begging and in front of the ashram carefully cross the two lane road looking both ways on both sides and enter the outdoor tea shop with tables and chairs filling up with folks drinking milk coffee and milk tea - masala chai with ginger. I get a large of the later without sugar - don't have to ask anymore. The tea's so hot I can hardly get to the wobbly table with it held between burning finger tips.
A regular crawls up like a broken spider and smiling gets a banana in his one hand, my last. A man from Holland and I get into a conversation while we watch men hand down boxes from atop the twenty foot pile on the truck with two foot sides next to us. Tall shirtless dark Sekar from the downtown temple sits and takes part of the paper, greeting us in his deep mellow voice. Don't really need to say people are dark - almost all the locals are dark. I gaze at the almost black and beautiful skin of a woman at the next table. A cart goes by drawn by two bulls with humps, what we called Brahma bulls, Zebu is their breed. They're pulling a load of bricks. Their horns are long and painted brightly.
A young Czech woman says hi passing by - she'd been picking apples in France. The Bosnian must have left. Another tall chai and an unsweetened biscuit. I open the Deccan and read the bridge column, a lifelong habit - Phillip Adler, my favorite. That's why I buy the Deccan - we're on the Deccan Plateau as is much of Southern India.
The truck drives off without being tied down, the dark workers riding on top of the tipsy cargo, off to the next delivery spot.
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